Clockwise from lower right, the author at age 7 with her cousin Alena, Aunt Ola, and mother, Anna Spieglova Korbel.
Photo: Courtesy of Madeleine Albright
Learning to Fly
by Madeleine Albright

My mother was hyperprotective—she hovered over me. In 1947 I was 10 years old, and we lived in Yugoslavia, where my father was the Czech ambassador. I had a governess who gave me lessons, and I would play with the children of other diplomats. It was a pretty limited life. We'd moved around a lot, so I couldn't go to the regular school until the next year; I'd gotten ahead of myself. So my mother and father made the decision to send me away from our very close, loving family to a Swiss boarding school, and it was up to my mother to take me there.

I was a very serious child, and obedient. (I always thought when I wrote my memoir I would start with "I was born an adult.") But I did not want to go. How would I manage? I didn't speak a word of French. My way of resisting was to develop a rash. I don't know whether it was psychosomatic or a genuine rash. But my mother, who was unexpectedly resolute, said, "We're going." On the flight to Zurich, I was crying so much that my mother's whole arm was wet. Next morning in Zurich I told her, "I can't move my legs." Oh, she said, "Zurich is a center for polio research—we'll find a doctor." All of a sudden I could get out of bed.

My mother took me to that school and, overprotective though she was, made me go. And it was one of the most important years of my life. My first problem at the school was that in order to eat, you had to speak French. And you needed French to participate in class. So the early weeks were hard. In those days, you didn't call your family every five minutes, and there was no e-mail. I didn't even go home for Christmas. But in the end, I conquered the situation. I learned French, I learned to ski, I learned to be in a place that I wasn't at all comfortable in, and I had to make it comfortable for myself. I learned to be independent. That year has stood me in good stead forever. And I grew to love it there.

I have three daughters now, and I remember nights when I lay in bed paralyzed with unreasonable fear over where they were. I think the hardest thing for a mother is to make it possible for a child to be independent and at the same time let the child know how much you love her, how much you want to take care of her, and yet how truly essential it is for her to fly on her own. It's definitely the "pushing out of the nest syndrome."

I think of my own mother, knowing what I know now. How difficult this must have been for her. She died in 1989. Without her, it sometimes feels as if there's nothing between me and the sky, but then her lesson always shows itself. It is nothing short of a wonder that she sent me away. But she knew to do it.

Madeleine Albright was the first woman to serve as Secretary of State for the United States. She is the author of Madam Secretary (2003), The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (2006) and Read My Pins (2009).

More from Madeleine Albright
Explore her pin collection
The books that made a difference to her 
The Oprah talks interview

The Next Great Moment in Mothering: Being Scheherazade's daughter


Next Story